MEXICO CITY -- The back-to-back champions of Mexico's budding six-team pro football league still train on a rented soccer field, where a kicker launches footballs over phantom uprights while players are careful not to run over corner-kick flags. And the goalposts? That's where touchdowns are called.
It's football in a fútbol environment.
On a chilly winter evening beneath pale lighting, the CDMX (Mexico City) Mayas are running no-contact drills, in helmets but without pads as preparation for the seven-game 2018 regular season, which kicked off last Saturday.
"If people give us a chance and watch us perform, I know they'll be hooked," said 26-year-old Omar Cojolum, running back for the Mayas and the league's leading rusher in 2017. "We play with passion. For me, football is life."
The Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional (LFA) is still looking to gain a foothold with fans in its third season of play, lining up television partners and streaming games on the league website and Facebook page, along with an Under Armour deal to dress the squads. Yet venues are modest, as the six teams -- four from Mexico City and the surrounding area -- play in stadiums that hold fewer than 10,000 fans. Sellouts are rare.
Last season, in an attempt to gain notoriety, the league signed former Bengals WR Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson to a one-game cameo with the Monterrey Fundidores.
Though Johnson's incursion in the LFA was little more than a publicity stunt, the league mostly features domestic players looking to chase gridiron dreams beyond college football. A select few, however, have NFL experience. Mauricio "Tyson" López, the Mayas' star defensive lineman, was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2007 preseason, and by the Oakland Raiders in 2009. Tackle Ramiro Pruneda, also of the Mayas, was on the practice squad for the San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs and the Eagles from 2007 to 2008. In addition, both López and Pruneda lend their expertise as NFL analysts for ESPN Mexico.
Cojolum hails from Naucalpán, a city just 13 miles outside of Mexico City. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood with his mother, María Guadalupe and two older brothers, Marco Antonio and Ramón Olaf, the latter requiring special attention because of a disability. As a child, Cojolum found solace in football after initially resisting the game.
"[Marco] dragged me with him at first and I just didn't want to go. After a while, it grew on me," he said.
Starting at just 4 years old, Cojolum excelled at the game through grade school, eventually gaining a scholarship to the nearby Universidad del Valle de México (UVM). Though the commute to the college was barely a handful of miles, he said it felt like a whole new world.
"Where I'm from, it would've been easier for me to take the path with crime and drugs maybe, but I've always loved sports," he said after finishing practice one day. "I didn't want to poison my body and mind with that."
With his college team, the Linces (Lynx), Cojolum shined as a running back, all the while pursuing a degree and holding down a job in support of his family.
"Then, I found out I was going to have a son," he said.
Cojolum's part-time job turned into a full-time gig. Unable to keep playing, his scholarship was withdrawn. At age 20, Cojolum briefly dropped out of school to provide for his mother, brother and new son.
"The amount of hardship he's been through has shaped him as a man," said Alma Martínez who along with her husband, Jesús Omana, owns the Mayas. Martinez developed a close bond with Cojolum since their association with the Mayas first began a year ago.
"He never wavered from his dream, and he was so good you just knew he would find a way to come back eventually," Martinez said.
Cojolum settled in with a work schedule allowing him to return to school, and his scholarship in 2011.
"Then I broke my leg," he recalled.
Sidelined for another six months, he redshirted and played his last season in 2015, just in time to be considered eligible for the nascent pro football league, as it held its draft for the inaugural season in 2016. Cojolum was the Mayas' first pick.
Reminiscent of the NFL model, players in Mexico's two main college leagues, the 22-team ONEFA and the 12-team CONADEIP have been drafted by the LFA since its creation to provide a pipeline from the amateur game to the next level.
"I think it's fair to say players reach a physical peak in this sport from age 23 to about 30," said Oscar Perez, president of the LFA. "We didn't have a pro league in Mexico that enabled players to take advantage. Omar is a perfect example of this, and we're happy to have him."
Perez has high hopes for his league, and the LFA is in full expansion mode in the coming seasons. Of the six teams in the 2018 season, four are from Mexico City area --the Mayas, Condors and Méxicas are from CDMX and the Raptors are from Edomex, or the state of Mexico surrounding the capital city. Two teams in the north, Dinos from Saltillo and the Monterrey Fundidores, round out the league. The Mayas didn't fare very well in their season debut, as the Raptors blanked them in the opener.
"There are still difficulties there, logistically speaking, economically speaking. But we're hopeful the league will expand greatly," he said.
"It was an absolute coup for us to get Omar," said César Zúñiga, the Mayas' technical director, a position he described as a sort of cross between general manager and director of player personnel. "He reminds me of [former Rams RB] Eric Dickerson, the way he runs with such power and purpose."
In the league's first championship game in April 2016, Cojolum scored two touchdowns, including a 71-yard scamper in the Mayas' 29-13 win over the Mexico City Raptors. The performance enamored Omana, then just a fan, into buying the franchise.
"Both of my sons play youth football, so we went to all the games that first season as a way to bond as a family," Omana said. "I loved what I saw, so I contacted the league about buying the team, and they offered me a different one. I didn't want it. If it's not Mayas, then don't bother."
Finally, with the 2017 season underway, Omana was granted the chance to buy into the LFA with his dream franchise.
Although they are close now, the relationship between the Omanas and Cojolum got off to a rocky start. Just a few days after securing ownership of the team, the couple were unable to procure a flight for the team for an away game in Monterrey. Martinez was then stuck on a 13-hour bus ride with a cranky group of players, the chorus of groans led by the star running back.
"Every time we'd hit a bump or slow down because of traffic, Omar would complain," Martinez said.
Soon, she felt, there would be a mutiny on her hands.
"I stood up, walked towards him and told him to stop being a diva," she recalled.
Finger to his face, Martinez challenged Omar to show the new owners what he was capable of doing as a leader on the field.
It wasn't the only time Cojolum would get in trouble on a team trip. Cojolum posted a video of a Mayas official addressing the team during a bus ride to an away game, a violation of the league's policy. He served a one-game suspension at the start of this season.
"It's a little strange to think that now I refer to Alma and Jesus as 'Mom and Dad,' " Cojolum said.
After the Mayas won the second of their back-to-back titles in 2017, Cojolum sprinted to Alma and Jesus to embrace them.
"It was a special moment, I feel like I owe them so much," he said. Cojolum crowned his sophomore season winning the league's award for best running back.
Aiming to become the first dynasty in the fledgling league's history, the Mayas are hoping to end their upcoming season on a different fútbol pitch. The Estadio Azul, home of Liga MX's Cruz Azul and the place where the NFL held its first exhibition game south of the border in 1978, will host the LFA's championship game next April.
"It's exciting to think about what it would be like to play in front of a crowd like that," Cojolum said. "It's a long way away, but I can picture myself celebrating another title with my family."
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Monterrey native Daniel Suarez, the first full-time Mexican driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, appears comfortable in the garage among the stars of the stock-car series.
He finished a respectable 20th in the standings last season as a late replacement when Joe Gibbs Racing veteran Carl Edwards abruptly retired in January 2017. His crew chief, Dave Rogers, stepped down in March 2017, replaced by Scott Graves.
The 26-year-old Suarez, thanks to lessons learned during a sometimes frustrating rookie year, is ready for 2018.
Here are the three lessons that he said will have the biggest impact:
1. Be patient
“During a race, it is very important because these races are long and you can make adjustments and you can make ground as the race is progressing. As well, sometimes you have a great weekend and sometimes you have a weekend that is just OK. So you have to learn from those and try to be patient.”
2. Work extra hard with the team at the shop
“Last year definitely was a year, it was just a difficult year with a lot of changes and a lot of adjustments. It wasn’t a year that a rookie will dream of. But at the end of the day, I think it taught me a lot of things for this season to know what I need to do and what I need to do in the shop. To prepare myself with the team, with the information that we have -- we have a lot of engineers and a lot of information from four teams. There is a lot of information there that you can learn from. That is something that I learned for sure last year and that is going to be helpful for this year.”
3. Learn the technology
“I’m talking about data, Dartfish [video that overlaps drivers’ laps], a lot of different tools that can help to learn quicker about the series and about the competition. To try to take advantage of that as much as possible is important. … Looking at data and Dartfish are the most important [plus] watching film -- just spend as much as time as possible learning and preparing myself for the next race.”
Baseball’s international tournament of the winter season came to a conclusion in Guadalajara, Mexico, as the Criollos de Caguas of Puerto Rico reigned victorious after defeating the Águilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Republic in dramatic fashion Thursday in the Caribbean Series championship game.
The 9-4 win capped an emotional season for Puerto Rico's Criollos in a league that contemplated suspending the season in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In a shortened season, and playing in a neighboring town's baseball park, Caguas won the domestic league and the Caribbean Series title, successfully defending the crown at home and abroad.
Here are five things of note in the Caribbean Series:
1. Puerto Rico wins back-to-back titles
For the first time in 20 years, one team has won the Caribbean Series consecutively, emulating the run made by the Dominican Republic’s Águilas Cibaeñas in 1997 and 1998.
Puerto Rico was able to mount formidable comebacks in the semifinal against Venezuela via a dramatic grand slam, and then in the final against Dominican Republic, scoring eight runs in their final two innings.
2. Mexico crashes out at home
Despite an eclectic mix of former Major League Baseball players such as pitchers Sergio Mitre (Cubs, Yankees) and Edgar González (Diamondbacks), as well as infielder Alfredo Amezaga (Angels, Marlins), all managed by Benjamin Gil (retired infielder for the Rangers, Angels), the Tomateros finished the tournament 1-3.
The Mexicans lost their first three and drew the boobirds from the home crowd for their last-place performance.
How bad were things for the hosts? Their best play of the tournament came from the stands, when a fan wearing a Mexico hat made a spearing grab during the Cuba vs. Venezuela tilt.
3. MLB prospects show off skills
Puerto Rico’s Anthony García was named the tournament’s MVP after leading all players with three home runs, eight RBIs and eight runs. García’s clutch grand slam against Venezuela sparked his team’s comeback in the semifinal match, an eventual 6-5 win.
Following his performance, the 26-year-old left fielder will roll into spring training with the Oakland A’s, attempting to win the big league spot that did not come in previous years with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him.
Jesmuel Valentín, son of former MLB infielder Jose Valentín, also stuck out for Puerto Rico. The 23-year-old Philadelphia Phillies second base prospect scored six times during the tournament and hit .370 with a home run and three RBIs.
Elsewhere, the Dominican Republic’s Edwin Espinal hit .280 and drove in six runs. The Detroit Tigers signed the 23-year-old first baseman to a minor league deal after the 2017 season, following a stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization.
4. A billionaire, a boxer and a former president
Celebrities were commonplace during the tournament this year, as Mexican magnate and baseball fan Carlos Slim was called upon to inaugurate the Caribbean Series on Feb. 2. Slim was on hand last year as well for the World Baseball Classic in Guadalajara, but this year, he was joined by a pair of notable, if not peculiar, guests.
Guadalajara native Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez was on hand to toss the first pitch, after former U.S. President Bill Clinton handed the ball off to the three-time world champion. Clinton drew a standing ovation from the crowd, addressing them with a simple, “I love baseball. Enjoy the show.”
5. Close but no cigar for Dominican Republic
The Águilas Cibaeñas could’ve been forgiven for putting on a weak performance -- their domestic championship series went to seven games, and they arrived in Mexico less than 48 hours after winning the Dominican winter league.
Spurred on by players such as Panama’s Christian Bethancourt (Brewers) and former Cubs outfielder Junior Lake, the Dominican Republic made the final this year for the first time since 2013. Though Dominicans dominate in numbers among foreign players at the major league level (93 players present on Opening Day 2017 rosters), teams from the island nation have not been able to win the Caribbean Series since 2012, their longest drought.
The Águilas Cibaeñas made it to the final of the Caribbean Series despite a couple of big losses in the first round -- 15-4 against Venezuela and 7-1 against Mexico. In fact, they tied for the tournament’s worst offense (scoring 18 runs) and also allowed 27 runs, the most among all five teams.
Ever wonder why many Cuban baseball players have names that start or carry the letter Y?
Consider that eight of the 28 players on Cuba's winter league champion Alazanes de Granma roster for the 2018 Serie del Caribe have given names that start with the letter Y, including Yoelkis Céspedes, the younger half-brother of New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes. There's also catcher Yulexis La Rosa; infielders Yurisbel Gracial, Yulián Milán and Yordan Manduley; and pitchers Yanier González, Yoannis Yera and Yoalkis Cruz. And there's even a surname with a Y belonging to infielder Jorge Antonio Yhonson.
"For me, it's an honor to have a name that starts with Y and share that with the great MLB players who have them as well," said Yoelkis Céspedes.
The late Cuban baseball broadcaster Eddy Martin called them “impossible names.” Griping on air about the difficulty to pronounce and spell them, Martin claimed he heard “over 400 variations” of the style.
It’s not a mere coincidence, either. The rise in popularity of names starting with this letter has been chronicled in the past. Famed Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has been writing about Generación Y (Generation Y, both the title of her blog and the name she's given the phenomenon) for more than a decade. The blog also chronicles daily life in Cuba, providing a unique peek into the island.
Sánchez has been widely praised for Generación Y, including being named to Time's Most Influental People list in 2008. A year later, President Barack Obama name-dropped the blog when talking about Cuba, praising it in the process.
The how and why of the naming phenomenon is still somewhat unknown.
"I don't have a definite answer for it," Yurisbel Gracial told ESPN Deportes reporter Marly Rivera. "I know that in Cuba it's very usual for people to have their names start with Y, but I don't really know where it comes from."
Andy Gomez, a retired director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, asserted it came about from the Soviet influence on the island’s population in the 1980s.
“You had a distinct Soviet influence; you had Russians who would marry Cubans and named their kids with the distinctive letter,” said Gomez.
An added bonus for the socialist regime was straying away from more common and traditional Catholic fare like Pedro, María, Jesús and Juan.
Sánchez wrote in her book Cuba Libre about her countrymen's tendency to utilize anything -- including names -- to make a statement either critical or supportive of their government: “In Cuba, there is no middle ground. Everyone is either a revolutionary or a counterrevolutionary.”
In Cuban baseball, Generación Y is well represented beyond the current Caribbean Series roster. A total of 12 Cuban-born ballplayers who have first names starting with Y are either current or former major league baseball players. The list includes L.A. Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada, Indians first baseman Yonder Alonso and the aforementioned Céspedes. All members of the Generación Y fraternity in MLB were born after 1980, as well.
The trend, also observed on last year's World Baseball Classic roster, contained another eight players belonging to Generación Y: Yosvany Alarcón, Yurisbel Gracial, Yasmany Hernández, Yosvany Torres, Yoanni Vera as well as Granma’s Cruz and Céspedes.
Beyond baseball, Generación Y is also present in other Cuban sporting pursuits. One of the country's Olympic medalists in Rio 2016, wrestler Yasmany Lugo, took home silver in the 98-kg Greco-Roman division. At London 2012, four more stepped on the podium, ranging from boxing to athletics: Yanet Bermoy (judo), Yarisley Silva, Yarelys Barrios (both athletics) and Yasniel Toledo (boxing).
In fact, of all the Generación Y athletes who have reached an Olympic podium, only one did so before the year 2000: volleyball player Yumilka Ruíz, who was part of the Atlanta 1996 squad that took home the gold.
It is unclear whether the names of Generación Y will live on for future generations of Cubans. Dr. Gomez asserts that Cubans will revert back to more traditional names.
“In the island, people will move away from it either as a rejection of the continuation of the Marxist-Leninist regime, and because there’s a certain psychological stigma for people with made up names,” said the scholar.
Follow the Caribbean Series on ESPNDeportes.com here. WatchESPN carries Spanish-language broadcast of the semifinals and final here.
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
Following the dramatic Game 7 victory by the Aguilas Cibaeñas over the Tigres del Licey to lock up the Dominican Republic winter title on Wednesday night, the field is set for the 2018 Caribbean Series. The Dominicans will join the championship teams from winter leagues in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and host Mexico in Guadalajara from Feb. 2-8.
The premier international baseball competition of the winter will feature a breadth of interesting storylines for fans looking to get their fix on the eve of Major League Baseball spring training. Here are five things to watch for in the coming week of games:
1. Current and former MLB players on display
There will be plenty of familiar faces for baseball fans to recognize in Guadalajara, as four of the five teams have players with MLB experience on their rosters. Mexico's champion, Tomateros de Culiacán, will feature former Cubs and Yankees hurler Sergio Mitre, as well as ex-Angels infielder Alfredo Amézaga, selected one spot ahead of Albert Pujols in the 1999 draft.
Venezuela's Caribes de Anzoátegui features former Mariners pitcher Freddy García and infielders Alexi Amarista (Angels, Padres, Rockies and Tigers) and Luis Sardiñas (Rangers, Brewers, Mariners, Padres and Orioles), among others. Puerto Rico's representative and current Caribbean Series champ Criollos de Caguas will take former Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo, a Cuban native. Panamanian Christian Bethancourt, who pitched and caught for the San Diego Padres last season and is with the Brewers organization, will be included on the Dominican Republic roster.
2. Puerto Rico aims for consecutive titles
The Criollos de Caguas will aim to become the first team to win back-to-back Caribbean Series titles in the same host country. After their dramatic win over the Aguilas de Mexicali in the 2017 edition held in Culiacan, Mexico, the Puerto Rican representatives are back to defend their title, this time looking to win it in Guadalajara. The tournament moved from Venezuela back to Mexico after socioeconomic troubles and violent citizen protests forced Venezuela's top baseball organization to forfeit hosting duties.
Should Caguas win again, they'll also make history becoming just the second Puerto Rican team to win five total Caribbean Series, tying the Cangrejeros de Santurce, a team that last won the tournament in 2000. Caguas snapped a three-decade drought last season and are now looking to be the first repeat champs since the Aguilas Cibaeñas did it in 1997-98.
3. Cuba's Cespedes connection
Granma will be returning to the Caribbean Series after claiming their first berth last year. The Cuban Serie Nacional champions boast a roster comprised of mostly local players, including Yoelkis Céspedes, the half-brother of New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes.
Yoelkis, the youngest of the two, already starred for Granma at last year's tournament in Culiacán. The Cuban club was also home to Yoenis before he defected to the United States and began his MLB career with the Oakland A's.
One player on Granma's roster to watch will be outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, who plays professionally in Japan for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Despaigne is the record holder for single-season home runs in Cuba with 36, according to ESPN Stats and Information. In Japan, he's coming off a season in which he belted 35 round-trippers.
4. The Dominican Republic looks to end its drought
It has been six years since any team from the Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series, the longest drought for the country since the tournament resumed its annual nature in 1970.
Furthermore, the Águilas Cibaeñas, this year’s representative, have gone more than a decade without winning it. In 2007, a 5-1 record pushed them toward their fifth title in 10 years, capping a dominant run in which they won the series in 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2007. They haven't figured since, but a championship this year would also mean they are the second-most successful team in history, behind Dominican rivals Tigres del Licey, who have won it 10 times.
5. How and when to watch
Games will be available via ESPN Deportes and MLB Network, and streaming with Spanish-language audio on WatchESPN.
The tournament kicks off Friday, Feb. 2, with two games: Venezuela will face Cuba in the opener at 2 p.m. ET. Following the opening ceremonies from Guadalajara, Puerto Rico will play against Mexico at 9 p.m. ET.
After the preliminary round wraps up on Tuesday, Feb. 6, the top four teams will square off in the semifinals a day later. Winners of those tilts will fight for the championship in the title game at 9 p.m. ET on Feb. 8.
See Caribbean Series stories, standings, schedule and results on ESPNDeportes.com here.
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
MEXICO CITY -- After the crushing damage dealt by Hurricane Maria to Puerto Rico in September, the island’s fabled winter baseball league was in danger of being canceled for the 2017-18 season.
An abridged, one-month season was eventually agreed upon, with several notable changes in effect, including games played exclusively in daylight because of a lack of electricity. Starting extra innings with runners on base to accelerate scoring was approved. Two teams on the western portion of the island -- Aguadilla and Mayagüez -- were combined. The Criollos de Caguas could not play in their stadium which was directly in the path of the eye of the storm and was wrecked. Instead Caguas played in the nearby town of Gurabo, at the small confines of a Double-A park. The Criollos went on to win the championship and will represent Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series, which starts Feb. 2 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Even with the season ultimately taking place, 17 Puerto Rican players, according to the Puerto Rican players’ association, opted to play in other Caribbean and Mexico winter leagues. That includes Jovan Rosa; the 22nd-round draft pick by the Chicago Cubs in 2006 landed with the Mayos de Navojoa -- runner-up in Mexico’s Pacific League final series against the Tomateros de Culiacán.
“Nearly my whole family is still in Puerto Rico,” Rosa said. “Conditions are still not what we would want them to be; almost none of them have electricity or other basic services and it really pains me. I came to Mexico without knowing what to expect, but the reception I’ve gotten has been amazing. I’ll never forget my time with Navojoa.”
Although Rosa resides in Connecticut, he had played last season with Aguadilla, the team that still held his rights for this season, and was keen to return to Puerto Rico this season.
Rosa said the heavy emotions he has felt by forgoing time in Puerto Rico have been calmed by his time in Navojoa, a city of just 157,729 inhabitants in northwestern Mexico.
Navojoa has won two Mexican Pacific League titles since its founding, the most recent one coming in 2000. Despite the team’s modest success, it has boasted numerous notable players in its history, including Rickey Henderson, Kevin Youkilis and local hero Fernando Valenzuela.
“I’ve never experienced the type of reception or the type of love people here have for their team,” Rosa said. “It’s amazing. The stadium here may be small [a capacity of 11,500], but fans make it feel a lot bigger and more imposing.”
Although Rosa is looking forward to visiting his relatives in Puerto Rico, the idea of extending his stay in Mexico professionally is alluring.
“There are still many necessities people have in Puerto Rico that were caused by the hurricane, and it pains me,” Rosa said. “I want to help however I can. As a baseball player, I feel I can do that the most if I’m in Mexico. I’d prefer to be here and provide.”
Read more on the Caribbean Series/Serie del Caribe here.
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
MEXICO CITY -- Derrick Loop, a 34-year-old reliever from Corona, California, was in the midst of a formidable stretch in Mexico’s winter league. The Tomateros de Culiacán setup man, who said he thrives in pressure-packed situations in a charged atmosphere that is elevated another notch for the finals, had 12 scoreless appearances since Jan. 1, when he returned from injury in time for the team's playoff run.
That string ended Sunday in Game 7 of the finals, after Loop gave up a solo homer that resulted in the Mayos de Navojoa jumping to a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning. No matter: Cualiacán came back to tie and then win the game in 12 innings for its 11th Liga del Pacífico championship.
“It’s a playoff atmosphere from day one,” Loop said of the 68-game winter league schedule. “If you struggle early, you’re out of it, as opposed to the normal ups and downs in the summer.”
Cualiacán will represent Mexico in the Caribbean Series along with the champions from the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and, for the fourth consecutive year as an invite, Cuba. The series starts Feb. 2 in Jalisco, Mexico.
Loop, who will be participating in his second Caribbean Series, never made it to the big leagues on the mainland, bouncing around the minors on farm teams belonging to the Indians, Red Sox, Phillies and Dodgers. The left-hander's last contract with a Major League Baseball affiliate was in 2012. Then he played for a season in Venezuela's winter league with the Tiburones de La Guaira. Loop later spent four years in the Atlantic League, an independent circuit, before moving to Mexico in 2016.
“I had played in Venezuela before, and I thought the fans were phenomenal. So when I got the offer to play in Mexico, I got excited to play in front of Latin American fans again. They’re the best fans in baseball,” Loop said.
The year-round baseball schedule in Mexico means Loop and others can essentially pitch in the winter league and continue in the summer league. That's what Loop did in October 2016 when he joined Culiacán, then followed with the Piratas de Campeche of the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (LMB), the summer circuit that is Triple-A-level in Minor League Baseball.
In Culiacán, Loop has embraced relative stardom, as he is frequently accosted by fans for selfies and autographs, speaking fluent Spanish and indulging in traditional culinary offerings.
“The late-night tacos are amazing,” he said. “They’re just about the only thing available after games. It’s very difficult not to gain weight here.”
Loop is one of the 110 U.S-born players in the Mexican winter league, making up 28.9 percent of the 381 total players, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Mexicans make up 60.6 percent of players in the Liga del Pacífico, while Dominicans are at 3.9 percent.
Recent big-name foreigners include six-time MLB All-Star and 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada, from the Dominican Republic, who played for summer league Pericos de Puebla in 2015. Carlos Quentin, a two-time All-Star with the Chicago White Sox, played in the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol in 2016 and 2017.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan and long-time reliever Kyle Farnsworth have also played in Mexico recently. For some, it’s their first long-term experience in a country in which English is not the primary language.
“When I arrived in the United States, I learned English slowly and by ear,” said Willy Taveras, who played for the Acereros de Monclova last summer. “It’s easier for Latinos to play in Mexico than for the Americans who maybe don’t speak the language.”
Taveras completed his third season in Mexico’s summer league. The 36-year-old Dominican still possesses the Houston Astros’ record for longest hit streak, and he led the NL with 68 stolen bases in 2008.
“[The summer league] is a great league, plenty of guys with MLB experience. I can definitely say since I got here, the quality has gotten better,” he said.
Last summer, at the Serie del Rey, the championship series for Mexico’s summer league, former big leaguers Jorge Cantu, Alex Liddi and Sergio Mitre squared off for the Toros de Tijuana against a Puebla team managed by former Blue Jays skipper Tim Johnson and former MLB players Josh Roenicke, Julio Borbon and Endy Chavez.
“I didn’t know much about the Mexican league before I came in,” said Chavez, the former New York Mets outfielder. “But I’ve definitely been surprised. It’s tough to do well here.”
Chavez was convinced to take the plunge in Mexico by former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who was hired by Puebla last season as a spring training instructor. “I made a good choice. It’s a very competitive league,” Chavez said.
Despite the praise, Mexico fielded just nine (3.4 percent) of the 259 players born outside the U.S. on MLB Opening Day rosters in 2017, compared to 93 (35.9 percent) from the Dominican Republic.
Recently, two heralded Mexican pitching prospects -- the Red Sox’s Hector Velazquez and Dodgers' Julio Urias -- got their starts in Mexico’s summer and winter circuits. The two pitchers could very well follow in the footsteps of greats Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera, the former Brewers pitcher who won 20 games in 1986, good for an All-Star selection.
In the winter league, older players intermingle with younger prospects, sent down to hone their skills and arrive in rhythm for spring training. In Culiacan, Loop is on a roster that includes Eric Meza, a 19-year-old first baseman signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016, as well as 21-year-old Jose Medina, a pitcher in the New York Mets’ organization.
At the tail end of his career, without an MLB appearance to his name, Loop understands that his younger teammates have a better chance of reaching the big leagues than he does.
“I have no regrets. I put it all out there. I couldn’t get there, but there’s nothing I couldn’t do differently. If I can help someone else, that’s fantastic,” Loop said. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. Without a doubt, I’d stay here for the rest of my career. I’ve settled into the lifestyle and the type of play. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy Mexico. I know some guys can’t settle in, but that’s not me.
“I’ve played in [Triple-A], in front of big crowds my whole life, but nothing compares to Latin America, to Mexico. They love the sport. They love it year-round.”
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
MEXICO CITY -- On a recent sunny afternoon, Hugo Carabes prepared for a training session with the Guerreros Aztecas (Aztec Warriors), the amputee soccer club that welcomed him after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident.
"I might not be Messi, but I can show you things that not many people can do with just one leg," said Carabes while planting one of his crutches on the pitch.
Under Guerreros manager Ernesto Lino’s watchful eye, Carabes and the rest of the players warmed up prior to playing a friendly against a local school. Recognized as the team’s best player, Carabes played defense for Necaxa’s farm team, one of Liga MX’s most popular clubs.
“I am sure that Hugo will put on quite a show, as always," said Lino as his players circled the historic Agustín Melgar stadium, the velodrome that hosted cycling at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Teammate Miguel Angel Tapia, sporting the Warriors phosphorescent green anxiously awaited the opening whistle of the match.
"Soccer practice keeps us busy. Hugo and I both really enjoy this, and seeing people like him inspires all of us to turn out and helps us to forget the loss of a leg," said Tapia, who lost his right leg in a car accident. “I come and train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a respite for me. I have been unemployed for a year and a half. We are lost here in Mexico, and soccer is what gives me the will to go on."
Tapia plays forward and said he is his team's "Ronaldo". He has plenty of style and technique, and he dedicates his goals to his wife and daughter.
The Guerreros Aztecas formed in 2013, as one of 13 squads in the Liga Mexicana de Fútbol para Amputados (Mexican Amputee Soccer League or LMFA), with clubs located in Nuevo León, Jalisco and Sinaloa as well as the capital city. Various tournaments lead to a national championship match and on an international scale, Mexico competes in a Copa América and in the Mundial de Fútbol para Amputados, a World Cup.
“Our exercises are different from what you would see in conventional soccer. We learn how to fall on one leg to prevent injuries," explained Carabes, who amazes fans by bouncing the ball in the air up to 20 times with his only leg, not letting it fall to the ground.
The only requirement for acceptance on the team is to have lost a limb. Guerreros goalkeeper Israel Flores was born without one arm, and Carabes helps him tie his shoes prior to practice.
"I never leave the goal, and before playing I always do my pushups, squats and warm-ups. I'm ready at all times," assured Flores, who works in the government's Rights Commission for Persons with Disabilities.
"The dream of being able to get them onto the field of play has its rewards. There are a lot of similarities with 'regular' soccer, but the rules for amputees are different. We are constantly coming up with new exercises that they can do with only one leg," said manager Lino, who played in the reserves for first division club Atlante. He affectionately calls his players ‘incomplete heroes.’
Rules are similar to 7-person soccer, with a goalie, two defenders, two midfielders and a pair of forwards. The ball cannot be touched with crutches.
On the pitch, the "Lady Warrior", Karina Torres, receives plenty of attention as the only woman on the team and one of the few playing in the league. Torres lost a leg in an auto accident and decided to join the team for reasons that go beyond mere sports.
"I have a 3-year-old son, and I have to be strong. In Mexico, soccer is traditionally a man's game, and so coming to these games is my way of representing the best of my gender, of giving the best that I have, for me and my baby," she said.
During the first half of the match, one playmaker stands out: Luis Campos, who took a bullet in one of life's terrible twists of fate, leaving him disabled at an early age.
"I never took wrong turns in life, but today I am experiencing my best years," he said, while surveying the field through a light rain. "Nothing can stop us, we are the Guerreros Aztecas, and we are going to show right here and now what we are made of."
The team competed in the Amputee World Cup in 2014, and even though they did not claim the title at the event held in Mexico, they benefited greatly from being the host team, as squads from other parts of the world came to teach them techniques for overcoming setbacks and perfecting the sport that brought them back from oblivion: a sport that forces them to leave their prostheses on the sideline and give it their all on the field of play.
“This is a new life for him. We lost everything but we never lost hope,” said wife Brenda Carabes. “He saw his life slipping away, he fell into a deep depression, and being able to come back to the playing field is what saved him."
Carabes did not disappoint. He went on to score a hat-trick in the Guerreros' victory over the local school.
“This is the best opportunity that life has offered me, and not abandoning soccer is the best example that I can give to my daughters."
Those around Texas A&M-Commerce quarterback Luis Perez are usually surprised when he doesn’t excel at anything quickly. That’s why his teammates and coaches were perhaps a bit too hard on the senior and this year's Harlon Hill Trophy winner for best in college football’s Division II when they watched him struggle in his attempt to play softball.
“I hope Luis doesn’t mind me saying, but he swung and missed a bunch, and it was only slow pitch,” said Texas A&M-Commerce offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jared May. “We gave him a hard time about that.”
You see, 23-year-old Perez is also an avid bowler, has bowled a total of 12 perfect games since starting to play in high school. Perez is so good at bowling that he’ll often challenge himself with trick shots. A particular favorite of his includes walking down the lane backward, spinning and firing at the very last moment.
“He’s a guy who I think if he wanted to take up golf, it might take him six months, but he’d master it and frustrate everyone else,” said May.
Such is the confidence for a player who didn’t even play quarterback until 2014, when he became the starter at Southwestern, a junior college in his hometown of Chula Vista, California. Three years later, Perez will try to deliver a Division II championship when the Texas A&M-Commerce Lions face off against West Florida in the title game on Dec. 16 (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Despite the relatively short amount of time, Perez’s road to glory has seen its twists and turns.
“I always wanted to be a quarterback. I had a vision of playing in the NFL and I knew I could do it,” said Perez. “But when I went to my last high school home game, I was upset being in the bleachers, watching my buddies play the game I love. That’s when I started making moves.”
Early in life, Perez fell in love with football. As a child, he recalls playing catch with friends and watching the then-San Diego Chargers on television. Though he grew up in a Mexican-American family with strong ties to soccer -- his father, Juan Luis, had played professionally for Mexican first-division clubs Atlas and Leon in the 1980s and ’90s -- Luis was not interested in the sport.
“I never liked [soccer] because I was always the chubby kid and I didn’t like running,” he said, chuckling.
After a brief football career playing tight end in high school at Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch, Perez enrolled at Southwestern. There, he tried out for the team, his ambition clearly stated. But Jaguars head coach Ed Carberry wasn’t convinced about letting a guy who had never played the position start for his team.
“He told me he played a little in high school, never varsity, and was basically a backup tight end,” said Carberry. “I told him he’d be, at best, our third-string quarterback and he’d never get to play. Either he changed positions, transferred to a different school or just plain quit. That’s how I tried to cut him. Thank goodness he stuck around!”
Perez persisted. When injuries to others opened the door for him at Southwestern, he responded.
“After he threw a touchdown in his first game, he ran up to me and said: ‘I told you I could do it!’ I was glad he could,” said Carberry.
Just two weeks after being named the starter, however, Perez broke his leg.
“The moment I went down, I sat back and I doubted myself a little bit,” said Perez. “But I started getting better and propped myself back up. I had more confidence, I did it once -- why not do it again?” Perez used the opportunity to devour film, study his own form and those of his idols at the NFL level. “He’s dedicated in everything he does,” said Carberry.
Upon his return from rehab, Southwestern had recruited competition for Perez, forcing him to win his job back in practice.
“Luis outworked everyone. Then he took us to the conference championship game and won us the game,” said Carberry.
News of Perez’s success attracted interest from bigger schools. He received 10 offers and ultimately opted for Texas A&M-Commerce prior to the 2016 season.
“You could definitely tell he could play from watching film,” said May. “But it was all the little things that added up and stood out. The intangibles like his work ethic and mental toughness. When we finally got to it, we realized this guy could probably take us to a new level.”
— Jared May (@CoachJMay) December 14, 2017
After a rough first game as a starter for Texas A&M-Commerce in which he threw three interceptions, Perez impressed his coaching staff with his dedication to get better.
“Some of the fundamentals of playing the position, quite honestly he didn’t have,” said May. “A lot of the experiences many guys from middle school had he lacked. So those hard-luck lessons in playing QB came to him late, but his attitude is fantastic.”
In two seasons with the Lions, Perez has passed for more than 7,700 yards and 74 touchdowns. Last year, in a game against Western New Mexico, he was even called upon to punt. Perez’s whirlwind success at Texas A&M-Commerce has yielded, at the individual level, a total of two Harlon Hill nominations and one win, a Division II All-American honorable mention in 2016, and a first-team All-American selection this year.
Now he yearns to lead his team to triumph.
“I’m excited, fired up. West Florida is a very good team, but so are we. We’re just going to go after it for 60 minutes,” Perez said.
Perez insisted he’s not looking past what will be his final college game. Nevertheless, he’s clear about what his intentions are at the pro level.
“I’m a guy that no matter how much praise I get, I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I know this can happen for me.”
Perez has an outside shot to go from a Division II school to an NFL roster next season, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback from his school to play in the league.
Wade Wilson, former Pro Bowler for the Minnesota Vikings and current the quarterbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys, was drafted in 1981 when the school was known as East Texas State.
“We’ve had some really good stories with quarterbacks playing at the next level. All Luis needs is a chance, an opportunity,” said May.
Those around Perez are more inclined to believe he’ll make it happen somehow, just as he’s been able to overcome the odds thus far.
“One thing he is, he’s a great decision-maker. He’s incredibly and uncannily accurate. Those are two things that give him the ability to compete,” said Carberry. “Can he play at the NFL level? Absolutely.”
In the end, Perez is himself convinced he’ll one day share the field with childhood heroes Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.
“I’m going to pursue it every way I can. I’ll find a way. If the NFL doesn’t have me, I’ll go to Canada and earn it.”
MEXICO CITY -- Andy Panko’s NBA career spans all of one minute. On Jan. 11, 2001, the then-23-year-old forward was nearing the end of a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks. With 11 seconds left, and his squad comfortably ahead by 11 against the Golden State Warriors, Panko was subbed in by Atlanta coach Lon Kruger.
It would be Panko’s first and last NBA game. The experience was over so quickly, even he has trouble remembering the specifics.
“It was all such a blur,” said Panko, an 18-year veteran of the pro game. “What I do remember is standing at the free throw line, looking around and seeing guys like Chris Mullin, players I had grown up watching. It was surreal.”
Panko’s limited experience in the NBA, however, is just a footnote in an otherwise successful career outside the league.
“I obviously wish I would’ve hung around longer, but it is what it is,” he said. “After I didn’t get a call from the NBA after the Hawks, I headed overseas to provide for my family.”
Panko plays for Fuerza Regia in Mexico's 11-team Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP). It's his second season here, after crisscrossing continents to play for teams in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Italy, France, Greece and Spain.
“For us, it’s huge that guys like Panko are with us,” said LNBP commissioner Alonso Izaguirre. A former player, Izaguirre played his entire career in Mexico before retiring in 2014. Last year, he was named league commissioner.
“We’ve had famous players with NBA pasts throughout our history. Many talented players from the United States and elsewhere have called this league home, and we definitely want to be known as the best Latin American league in the world.”
Notably, between 2004 and 2005, Dennis Rodman moonlighted with the Fuerza Regia and the defunct Tijuana Dragons of the semipro American Basketball Association (ABA). The NBA Hall of Famer’s cameos in Mexico spawned plenty of news stories. However, some weren’t confined to the hardwood. After his debut in Tijuana, for instance, Rodman exited the auditorium to find his Cadillac Escalade SUV had been broken into. In Monterrey, he once limited his outing to six minutes on the court before leaving midgame to go to a dance club.
Though Rodman’s time in Mexico was envisioned to give the former great a boost back into the NBA, many hopefuls know the odds of being picked up are slim, despite the geographical proximity.
“No player wants to hear that they’re not going to make it to the NBA,” said Darius Rice, of the Mineros de Zacatecas. “I played with Shaquille O’Neal; I was signed by Miami and Cleveland. I know I can play with those guys.”
Rice, a sharpshooter who played his college ball at the University of Miami, went undrafted in 2004. Despite finishing his three seasons in the NBA G-League averaging double-digits in points, Rice, the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, has never once played in a regular-season NBA game.
“No one can outshoot me, I feel. But the NBA doesn’t take guys that are 35 years old,” Rice said.
Throughout his 13-year career, his skills have taken him around the world. “I’ve played in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America. I’ve been all over,” Rice said. His last two stops before Mexico were Macedonia and Qatar.
Now in Mexico, Rice, born in Jackson, Mississippi, relishes what he says is a much quicker pace than the one deployed in Europe.
“I love the Latin American game. In Mexico, it’s tough and it’s competitive. It rivals the [NBA] G-League with the tempo," said Rice, who played in Venezuela in 2006 with the Marinos de Anzoátegui as well as Puerto Rico with the Gigantes de Carolina and the Capitanes de Arecibo in 2009 and 2010.
Rice can also get around the central Mexican colonial city of Zacatecas with relative ease. “I can speak poquito Spanish. Just enough to get by.”
As the closest foreign basketball league from the United States, the LNBP is an attractive destination for Americans. Of the 135 total players listed on the league’s website, more than half, or 54 percent, hold an American passport.
Some of those U.S.-born players are dual nationals who have competed or are eligible for Mexico’s national basketball team, like Lorenzo Mata of the Soles de Mexicali, Idris Dawud of the Toros de Nuevo Laredo, or Stephen Soriano of the Aguacateros de Michoacan.
Soriano, a graduate of Colorado Christian University, has spent the past eight seasons in Mexico, winning a championship in 2016 with the defunct Pioneros de Quintana Roo. The 6-foot-7 forward now plays for Aguacateros de Michoacán, on the Pacific coast.
“I get a lot of friends visiting and watching me play whenever we get close to the border,” said Soriano, a native of Mayer, Arizona. “The LNBP is a great league for Americans in general but also Mexican-Americans. You get a mix of guys who have played NCAA ball with players from Mexico and other countries. The addition of really good Mexican-Americans has made the level of the league that much better.”
Rice and Panko also enjoy the relative closeness from the United States, allowing them to spend more time with their families even as the season wears on. “I’ve had one Thanksgiving and one Christmas at home in my career -- so it’s a good trade-off,” Rice said.
Izaguirre admits the easy travel is a beneficial factor toward attracting talent to his league, though not the determinant one.
“Being close to home is definitely a plus,” he said. “But we know they come here because the league’s level is competitive. It’s not geography in the end. It’s basketball.”
This year, Panko traveled back from Monterrey to his native Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving break. “I mean, I live in the Central time zone, I’m five hours away from home by plane. I can leave at 6 a.m. and be home by noon. It’s a big reason why I’m here.”
The nearness to the United States was also a big reason why Toronto Raptors forward Alfonzo McKinnie found his way to Mexico in 2016, when he joined the country’s summer league, the Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacífico (CIBACOPA), and the Rayos de Hermosillo.
A graduate of UW-Green Bay, McKinnie averaged 7.1 points in his college career. After going undrafted in 2015, he moved to Luxembourg, where his scoring greatly improved. Wanting to keep his momentum going, he was referred to Mexico by an old friend, former North Dakota forward Emmanuel Little, who played in the Mexican league.
Quickly, McKinnie settled into a strong team in Rayos that finished atop the regular-season standings and made the final series, falling four games to two against the Nauticos de Mazatlan.
McKinnie remembers his time in Mexico with fondness. “The fans in Mexico were great, every single one of those fan bases are amazing,” he said. “They would wait for us outside the gym for selfies and autographs.”
Not familiar with Hermosillo’s scorching summers (highs in July can reach 103 degrees Fahrenheit), McKinnie recalled getting an assist from a group of Rayos fans when he decided to take a walk out into the city.
“I didn’t speak any Spanish, they didn’t speak any English, but they knew I was playing for Hermosillo, and I knew they were fans. So they offered to drive me where I was going,” McKinnie said.
Emboldened by his positive performances in Hermosillo, McKinnie flew to Chicago where he paid to participate in a public tryout.
“I was doing well, but people don’t usually look at Mexico to find players, so I had to go out and do it myself,” he said.
The tryout got McKinnie on the Chicago Bulls’ G-League affiliate. Following a season in which he made the league’s All-Star Game, he signed a multiyear contract with the Raptors prior to the 2017-18 season. To this day, he believes his work overseas was necessary to make it happen.
“If you got the talent, if you’re doing the right stuff and you have the work ethic, you deserve a shot no matter where you play,” McKinnie said. “I was just one of those guys who got lucky. The NBA is the hardest business to get into, but my work ethic showed and someone noticed it.”
Panko agrees with the assessment. In his second season with Monterrey's Fuerza Regia, he notes the Mexican game is still on an upward trend.
“There’s a big opportunity for the game to keep growing here,” Panko said. “I get asked about Mexico all the time. I tell guys to come and expect a good albeit physical style of play.”
Having just turned 40, Panko isn’t yet mulling retirement. He has, however, begun to look back with fondness on his career to this point, including his brief NBA walk-on.
“I wouldn’t change anything. It was a cool experience, a good story to tell my friends and my son -- that [Hawks] jersey is hanging up there with the rest of them.”
MEXICO CITY – On game days, the Asabar Sport Bar, a stone's throw from the city's Centro Histórico, resembles a raucous establishment in Boston decked out with an assortment of New England Patriots gear.
Consider the fans in attendance wearing the ubiquitous Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski or vintage Drew Bledsoe jerseys mingling with those wearing their own proper names stitched -- a "Gutierrez" and a "Rodo" dotting the crowd. In unison, all cheer a first down or gasp in excitement upon the completion of a big play. "Let’s go, Patriots!" gives way to ¡Vamos Patriotas!
Come this Sunday, the watch party moves to Estadio Azteca, where the Patriots will take on the Oakland Raiders in the second regular-season NFL game played in Mexico in the past two seasons, and the third in history.
“It’s one thing to watch the games as a family, even say, travel to New England and watch them play there," 39-year-old Gildardo Velasquillo said. "To have them here in Mexico is beyond words. It feels like we’re moving our watch parties onto the field itself.”
Velasquillo, a lecturer at the Universidad Tecnológica de México and a Patriots fan since 1993, founded Pats Army México, a 3,244-strong fan club that extends to nearby Puebla, out to Guadalajara on the Pacific, north to Chihuahua and into the Yucatán on the Caribbean coast. The club organized last year and is listed on the Patriots’ official fan club website.
He said about 90 percent of the 400 or so who attend the Mexico City watch parties will be at the game in Azteca. “No one wants to miss it,” Velasquillo said.
Tickets won't come cheap, ranging from $728 Mexican pesos (about $38) for nosebleeds to $8,400 pesos ($438) for the 50-yard line seats. The game sold out in two hours, according to NFL Mexico.
Mexico’s rabid NFL fandom has long been associated with the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of late though, the Patriots have been a rising force, exceeding in numbers other established fandoms, namely the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and the wildly popular "home" team for Sunday's game, the Raiders. According to NFL Mexico, New England is the third-most-followed team in Mexico, claiming slightly over 7 percent of the league’s total Mexican fans, following the Cowboys at 14 percent and the Steelers at 12 percent.
Another local Patriots fan club thrives in attracting fans via its social media accounts. Patriots Mexico claims over 75,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and was started by Ivan Mendoza, from the state of Michoacán.
A storied quarterback divisional rivalry --and a vintage team logo-- sparked Mendoza's devotion to the Patriots.
“It was in 1995 or 1996, I think. It was a Dolphins-Patriots game, and I loved watching Drew Bledsoe go up against Dan Marino,” said Mendoza, a 31 year-old pharmaceutical rep who says one of his proudest moments was securing the Twitter handle “@belichicks.”
He said he has also seen the Patriots live, travelling to Qualcomm Stadium (now known as SDCCU Stadium) in 2014 to watch New England take on the San Diego Chargers. (Pats won that one 23-14.)
“It’s funny to think I chose the team when I was younger because of Bledsoe and the fact I really liked the team’s old logo,” Mendoza said. “That has turned into a really strong love for the team. Just to be able to go to the stadium with so many of my friends, so many Mexican Patriots fans who have supported the team as long as I have is a spectacular experience to me.”
Fandom for the team in Mexico has not gone unnoticed by the NFL.
“We expect this to be a great event because of the massive amount of Patriots and Raiders fans in [Mexico],” said Arturo Olive, the Director General of NFL Mexico. “The Patriots fans here are supremely excited to see their team. Tickets are sold out and have been for a long time.”
In a news conference designed to kick off the week of events in Mexico City culminating with the Nov. 19 game, Olive was bullish on the country getting more games in the future and emulating the blueprint employed in London, where a record four games were played this season.
“We want to deliver three great events so that this event becomes permanent,” Olive said. “London had several years in their initial deal with just one game before the NFL expanded further. They hosted four this year, and we hope that in the future we can get multiple games in our country as well.”
Though support for the league and excitement for the Mexico City contests has been widespread, Olive acknowledged certain behaviors need to be tempered in order for Mexico to follow the London plan.
“We have to deal with things such as the homophobic soccer chant. We want to revert last year’s image, so I want to make an invitation on behalf of NFL Mexico asking fans to not chant [that] so as to present a better image for our country,” Olive said.
Patriots wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman visited Mexico City on an NFL-organized trip designed to promote the game globally earlier this year, savoring local cuisine and sightseeing the ancient Teotihuacan ruins, an hour outside of Mexico’s capital. This week the players appeared at a fan event to sign autographs and take pictures and fulfilled a childhood dream, donning lucha libre attire.
— Patriots News (@BDCPatriots) November 12, 2017
The Patriots were last in Mexico for a 1998 preseason game at Estadio Azteca, beating the Cowboys 21-3. A total of 106,424 fans attended the 1998 contest, in a game remembered locally for featuring Mexican-born wideout Marco Martos catching two passes for the Cowboys.
The crowd figure is also notable for being the second-highest turnout for any NFL game -- preseason, regular season or postseason -- in the league’s history, ranking behind the 112,376 who packed into the Estadio Azteca to watch the Cowboys and Oilers battle in an exhibition on Aug. 15, 1994.
A renovated Azteca Stadium last year welcomed 76,743 for the Monday Night Football game between the Raiders and Houston Texans. A similar crowd is expected for Sunday's sold out contest.
While Cowboys and Steelers fans have a longer tradition of popularity in Mexico, the Patriots' recent success has fueled a younger generation of fans.
“We know there’s a lot of Raiders fans in Mexico, but there’s a lot of people who love the Patriots too,” said David Dominguez, a 25-year-old veterinarian who works at the Mexico City Chapultepec zoo. “The crowd at the game, I expect, is going to slant towards my Patriots.” Like Velasquillo, he’s a founding member of Pats Army Mexico and memorabilia collector.
In his southern Mexico City residence, Dominguez houses a collection of apparel, posters and other Patriots-branded gear, though he cherishes his pictures with current and former players the most.
“I’ve met [defensive end] Trey Flowers, Julian Edelman and others,” he said. “It’s really a privilege, for a fan from Mexico City to be able to meet these guys is amazing. I actually captioned my photo with [Flowers] saying it looked like I was enamored with him.”
Latinos across the country have long embraced basketball fandom, yet producing a star in the game from the community hasn't always followed the fervor.
Last season, according to the NCAA, less than 2 percent of NCAA Division I basketball players (94 out of 5484) were Hispanic, despite an overall population percentage of around 18 percent in the nation.
One 16 year old who might grow into a top Hispanic player is shooting hoops in a gym with no working air conditioner, in a town most Americans have never heard of and will probably never visit. College scouts, though, make the trek to Camarillo, California, to see Jaime Jaquez Jr., a six foot, six inch tall small forward or shooting guard.
Camarillo is a small city in Ventura County, located north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara -- both locales far more famous. Jaquez's roots in both basketball and Camarillo go deep. His grandfather, Zeke Jaquez, whose Mexican heritage came from family near Guadalajara, grew up in the area, playing both baseball and basketball and eventually coaching his sons in their youth clubs.
He has great size, but he has a guard's skill. He has the ability to handle the ball and pass the ball as well as shoot the ball.
- Jaime Jaquez's high school coach, Michaeltore Smith
Jaime Jaquez Sr. recalled his own days as one of the few Hispanic basketball players in the area.
"Playing basketball in Ventura County, at Moorpark College -- there's not very many Latino basketball players," Jaquez Sr. said. "The first time I saw a lot was when we played East L.A. College, and I thought, 'Hey look, I’m not the only one.' That felt kind of good."
After transferring to Concordia College in Irvine to play there, Jaquez Sr. experienced another twist of fate via basketball.
"We came in to practice and there was the girls' basketball team," Jaquez Sr. explained. "I met my wife on the basketball court."
Angela Jaquez (then Angela Sather) averaged over 21 points a game at Concordia, leading her squad to the NAIA tournament her senior year.
"She played power forward," said Jaquez Sr. "She was a superstar."
Once the couple married, their child was destined, perhaps, to love basketball. Still, Jaquez Sr. made sure to put a variety of ball toys for different sports inside his son's crib.
It appeared to have an influence on the baby. Jaime Jr.'s first word, according to family lore, was "ball."
— VCS Preps (@vcspreps) December 22, 2015
The boy's first sport was actually soccer. Jaquez then transitioned to another traditional Latino sport, baseball. He never considered either a waste of time.
"Soccer helped my conditioning," Jaquez, now a junior in high school, said. "Baseball helped me with my hand-eye coordination. In basketball, you need both."
Both of his parents held off on teaching Jaime Jr. basketball, the game which had brought them together, until Jaime Jr. reached second grade. Even after teaching his son the basics, Jaime Sr. tried not to force his son into any particular position on the court. Instead, he taught him how to play all of them.
"My son is very good at handling the ball," Jaime Sr. explained. "He works really hard at what he does."
"I was impressed with his skill set at such a young age," said Camarillo boys' basketball coach Michaeltore Smith, speaking on watching Jaquez Jr. play for the first time as a freshman. "He was really advanced."
Though Camarillo had a losing season the year before Jaquez arrived on the team, in his freshman and sophomore seasons, the team played to a winning record. Jaquez averaged a double-double in points and rebounds each season. This school year, he is the team captain. The season begins in late November.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. EYBL video highlights. The most complete competitor on the wing in the 2019 class!
— The Truth (@TheTruthEYBL) August 31, 2017
Others have also noticed his skills. Jaquez has been invited, for three years running, to USA Basketball's Junior National Team camp.
"His versatility is what sets him apart," Smith praised. "He can play all positions for us."
It's such a unique feature of Jaquez's play, he is hard-pressed to find a comparable example of his playing style in today's NBA.
"He has great size, but he has a guard's skill," said Smith. "He has the ability to handle the ball and pass the ball as well as shoot the ball."
The player whose mentality has influenced Jaquez most is former Laker Kobe Bryant. Bryant is African-American, married to a Mexican-American and speaks passable Spanish.
"He is my favorite player," Jaquez said. "His competitive nature is something I really admire and try to emulate."
Jaquez, who occasionally visits family in Mexico, is also improving his language skills, practicing Spanish in addition to his high school classes in the subject.
Camarillo High School's most recent demographic study, in 2014, measured Hispanic students as 38 percent of the student body. With his success in basketball, Jaquez is something of a local hero.
"Adults come up," Smith said of reaction to Jaquez at games. "He and his family have made it a point to make their mark here."
The junior homecoming king at Camarillo passed up previous chances to move to expensive private schools which offered basketball aid and entrance. Instead, he plays for the same team his father once did. With numerous college offers coming in, Jaquez is still deciding where to play next, but his passage to the university level of the game is almost assured.
At games or at basketball camps for younger players, Jaquez talks with Hispanic fans of all ages who come to see him play.
"They're proud of me, just to see another Latino doing well in a sport not a lot of Latinos play."
Check out more stories on Latino athletes from ESPN.com
BOSTON -- I understand that Houston will celebrate its first World Series title, and I hope Astros fans take all the time they want to savor the win, especially as the city continues to recover from Hurricane Harvey. However, it’s time, Houston, for Alex Cora to leave you, because this son of Puerto Rico was named the manager of the Boston Red Sox to become the franchise’s first Latino manager, and the moment to make more history is now.
I happen to be Puerto Rican and have been constantly barraged and saddened by the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, so news that the 42-year-old Cora would be leading the team I have grown to love has been my sliver of comfort. In a city once invisibly Latino, Cora’s arrival will be the latest chapter of a baseball story that has made legends out of Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martínez, Manny Ramírez and, of course, "Big Papi" David Ortiz.
Now comes Cora, who has the opportunity to not only succeed in a tough baseball town but also prove to the baseball world that having a Latino manager at the helm shouldn’t be seen as some aberration.
The statistics are a stark reminder. In a league that is 31.9 percent Latino, Cora would be only the third Latino manager in the majors next season, joining the Chicago White Sox’s Rick Renteria and the Washington Nationals’ Dave Martinez (also Puerto Rican, by way of New York City). The excuse about how difficult it is to find a qualified Latino candidate or that there are only 30 managerial positions is tiresome. In a league that is more and more Latino, we should not be having this discussion any longer, and we should be insisting that three Latino managers is not enough.
Cora represents the opportunity to change the narrative and prove to other teams that if they are not seriously considering (and hiring) Latino candidates for managers, they are missing out. Latinos have led teams to major accomplishments, such as when Felipe Alou was named National League Manager of the Year in 1994.
Twenty-three years ago.
Or when Tony Peña won American League Manager of the Year in 2003.
Fourteen years ago.
Or when Ozzie Guillén won the World Series with the White Sox in 2005.
Twelve years ago.
It’s been a while, and it’s time to change that.
Over the past few years, the Red Sox have become a destination for Latino players, and there are no signs of that letting up. At one point this past season, the Sox fielded a lineup that featured a majority of Latinos on the field (Hanley Ramírez, Eduardo Nuñez, Rafael Devers, Christian Vázquez, Eduardo Rodríguez). In the history of Boston, that is a big deal.
Imagine what Cora can do with someone like the Dominican-born Devers, an exceptional young third baseman who has all the potential to be the next great Red Sox. Does it matter that someone like Cora understands how someone like Devers is dealing with cultural and language issues? You bet it does. And anyone who downplays this connection due to “political correctness” is missing the point: Without Latinos, Major League Baseball would be a different sport. Latinos are saving baseball, and it’s about time that teams have more Latino managers and coaches.
And let’s not forget that Cora’s influence as a bench coach for the Astros played a huge role in Houston’s magical season.
Not surprisingly, because this is Boston and there are few mainstream media Latino voices writing and talking about sports, there is a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Cora. Not many are discussing how historic his hiring was, given that Massachusetts is home to the fifth-largest Puerto Rican community in the United States, comprising the state’s largest share of Latino residents. And while Boricuas in Boston worry about Hurricane Maria, there is a sense of pride that Cora is coming to our city to represent us all. That might be hokey to many Boston sports fans, but not this one, and if you see me waving a Puerto Rican flag or wearing a World Baseball Classic Puerto Rico jersey next year in Fenway, you’ll know why.
So take as many victory laps as you want, Houston, but do it without Cora. Boston Boricuas are ready to give a big bienvenido to the new Red Sox manager. Because when it comes to Puerto Rican baseball, we take pride in our own —los nuestros.
Rodolfo Dickson of Mexico competes in the men's giant slalom during the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Switzerland.
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
MEXICO CITY -- Robert Franco, a slopestyle skier, trains on a rugged gravel hill in Iztapalapa, east of the capital.
Gravel and snow aren’t often associated with each another, but the gravel has to do when Franco can't trek around the globe scoping out an ideal snow-packed mountain. It’s all done with one goal: competing for Mexico in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
For the first time since Salt Lake City 2002, Mexico will have more than one athlete participating in the Winter Olympics: Franco in slopestyle and Sarah Schleper and Rodolfo Dickson in giant slalom.
All three finance their own training, which Franco confessed was more difficult than the actual preparation for competitions.
"The thing that makes it difficult is it gets more expensive because I have to travel to places that have it [snow],” Franco said. “So when I'm training here in Mexico, I'm working on my injury prevention and on building strength."
The California-born Franco, 24, has dual citizenship through his father from Guadalajara. Two top-30 finishes in qualification earned him a spot in the Olympics: a fifth place in the World Cup in Italy and 18th in Canada.
Dickson, from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and also bears a financial burden for his Olympic training.
"Funding for my sport has really been the hardest part leading up to the Olympics. I’m very lucky to have an amazing mother that has sacrificed a lot of her income for my dream," Dickson said.
Four-time Olympian Sarah Schleper will compete for the first time for Mexico in Pyeongchang after qualifying in the giant slalom at the Alpine World Ski Championships in Switzerland earlier this year.
Schleper will compete in her fifth Olympics, but it's her first representing Mexico. She doesn't let the money interfere with her dream and is even organizing a skiing school in her native Colorado to find future representatives for Mexico.
"I want to create a Mexican team that can obtain good results in the Olympics in the future. I have a son [Lasse] who is training and other kids who were born in Mexico," she said about the group of 12- to 14-year-olds in Vail.
After marrying Mexican Federico Gaxiola, Schleper came out of retirement to compete for a country that gained special meaning to her.
"Many people think it's wrong to switch countries to compete, but for me it's very natural to keep competing and for Mexico, which is my favorite country in the world; I love being Mexican," she said while training in Austria.
Despite few ski resorts in Mexico, where winter snow is common in the northernmost states, all three competitors believe there is untapped talent in the country.
"We just need to believe in the athletes and have a better program for the individuals. Mexico has lots of people, and I guarantee there is a kid out there destined for a gold at the Winter Olympics," said Dickson, who has dreamed of a gold medal since he was 6 years old.
“The culture is amazing, that's what makes Mexico so great; it's so much love and passion,” Franco said. “When I show my family that I'm going to be able to represent Mexico doing the sport I love, they just 100 percent back me up even more and say 'congratulations’ and continue to promote me to people that have never even seen snow.”
MEXICO CITY – Red Bull driver Max Verstappen smiled as he approached the Hermanos Rodríguez track. A sizable media contingent and a mariachi band followed. An eclectic group of VIPs watched as a few lucha libre wrestlers, clad in the traditional face masks, mingled in the crowd.
Welcome to Formula One media day, Mexican-style. After the Dutch driver, hometown favorite Sergio "Checo" Pérez followed suit with a colorful entourage.
“It feels great,” Pérez said. “It's a race that I'm waiting the whole season for. It comes really late in the calendar, but it comes at the right time. Just the atmosphere, the energy I get from the fans, is something that is extremely amazing.”
Since Formula One made its return to Mexico in 2015 after 23 years away from the country, some of the circuit’s top drivers have notably involved themselves in the cultural fare to promote the sport on each visit.
Lewis Hamilton climbed into a lucha libre ring for a promotional stunt in which he drop-kicked and pinned wrestler Mistico. The three-time Formula One champion declared his love for the delectable street tacos and snapped pictures wearing a mariachi sombrero.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) October 29, 2015
A year ago, Verstappen’s teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, went on an extensive tour of Mexico City, one that included a sampling of toasted grasshoppers, chapulines, in guacamole. Ricciardo would later show up with Verstappen to do media interviews before the race wearing traditional Mexican face paint.
For this edition of the race on Sunday, a greater emphasis will be placed on a truly Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated annually on Nov. 2. The festivities, popularized Hollywood-style in a recent James Bond film, will begin over the weekend at the massive Zócalo, the city's historic center. The F1 Fan Zone is set up at the nearby Campo Marte.
The race is also significant, as it will be Mexico City’s first major international hosting duty after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake killed 370 people and caused the collapse of 44 buildings in the capital on Sept. 19.
“We’ll have a race,” Rodrigo Sánchez, head of marketing for the Grand Prix of Mexico, told reporters days after the earthquake. “There’s really no concern for the [track and facilities].”
The event has been an outright success for the country. Last year’s Mexico GP drew 339,967 fans over a three-day period, according to Formula One.
“There’s a big bet here from [the organizers] to take this new event and turn it into a tradition,” said Carlos Jalife Ruz, a Mexican lawyer and auto racing columnist. “Not just a sporting tradition, but a Mexican tradition.”
Jalife’s father, Carlos Jalife Villalon, wrote The Brothers Rodriguez, a biographical work focused on Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, the siblings whose exploits in the world of F1 still reign supreme in the nation’s pantheon of auto racing stars. The venue for the Mexican Grand Prix, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, is named for them.
Pedro, the eldest of the two, is the only Mexican driver to ever win a Formula One race, winning the 1967 South Africa GP and the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix. He also won the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans with Belgian teammate Lucien Bianchi. Pedro died in West Germany in 1971, after he was edged into a wall. The death was doubly impactful in Mexico, as Pedro’s brother Ricardo, a former driver for Ferrari, had died nine years earlier, on the very track that would later be named for him and his brother.
In year three of F1’s return to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, a potential thrilling race finish and the possible crowning of a new champion could be a boost to its popularity. Should Hamilton end the race in the first five places, without challenger Sebastian Vettel finishing in the top two, the Englishman will win his third title in four years.
Hamilton’s executive director at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, told Sky Sports the task would not be a simple one, though the Briton has a sizable lead over nearest competitor Sebastian Vettel. "It will be important to be at the very top of our game if we want to get the job done."
The race is also yet another opportunity for 'Checo' Pérez, Mexico’s only Formula One driver at the moment, to endear himself in front of his home crowd. Though Pérez has yet to win a race in seven seasons, the Force India team member --seventh in the driver standings-- has finished in the top 10 for three consecutive years. Another Mexican driver, Esteban Gutiérrez, currently with Formula E, started last year’s race alongside Pérez.
“'Checo' is in the national conscience without having won a race yet, and that’s saying something,” said Jalife. “A race win, competing for a title or even moving to a bigger team would generate something even larger.”
Pérez himself seems to agree.
“I really want to give [the fans] a special result to celebrate in Mexico,” he told reporters. “Racing at home means a lot for me.”
The success of a breakthrough athlete within the circuit is paramount, but Formula One’s mere presence in the country is making inroads in a way other sports have developed within the country’s consciousness across the years.
Football, basketball and baseball, for instance, are more popular than auto racing in Mexico, according to a recent study published by Consulta Mitofsky. To that point, the NFL, MLB and NBA have brought or plan to bring official games to Mexico in recent years in an effort to consolidate their brand in the country.
The NFL will stage the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca on Nov, 19, while the NBA Mexico City Games 2017 slates a pair of games with the Brooklyn Nets facing the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 7 and the Miami Heat on Dec. 9 at the Arena Ciudad de México.
With just six Mexican drivers in Formula One’s history, the pressure is on
'Checo' Pérez to create a higher demand for the sport. Aside from the brothers Rodríguez and Gutiérrez, Moisés Solana raced in the 1960s, and Hector Rebaque raced last in 1981, starting a 30-year gap that ended in 2011 with Pérez’s rookie season.
“If we can have kids who want to become the next Sergio Pérez as opposed to say, the next big soccer star, we have a shot at generating more for the sport,” said Jalife.
Soccer, the country’s most popular sport by far, was actually at the forefront of yet another promotional event looking to hype up the Mexico GP.
— Sahara Force India (@ForceIndiaF1) October 25, 2017
Pérez and his French teammate Esteban Ocon traded their helmets for cleats in a celebrity match in Mexico City the Wednesday before the race. The Mexican driver scored five goals amid a cascade of cheers.
Though Pérez wishes to do the same after the race, there will be others in line. There’s Hamilton, who will be looking to repeat last year’s victory and take this season’s crown, and Verstappen, who missed out last year to his teammate Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who finished third and currently sits in fourth place in the F1 driver's standings.
“Hopefully,” Pérez said, “I give [Mexican fans] an amazing race and a lot of happiness they deserve to have.”